Reflections on the Week Just Past and the Weeks to Come
September 16, 2001
Psalm 42, 1 Corinthians 13 The Rev. Carol DiBiasio-Snyder
September 11, 2001. We will never forget that date. We will all remember exactly where we were when we first heard the news, when we first saw the horrific images. September 11, 2001. We are not the same people who gathered here just seven days ago. We have changed. Our world has changed. Our God has not.
At times this week I walked around numb, forgetting what I had intended to do. But mostly, my emotions have been all over the board. I'm sure yours have too. From fear to faith, from anger to compassion, from sorrow to the very real need to laugh, from confusion to resolve, from feeling overwhelmed to even feeling guilty for being safe myself and compared to thousands of others, only touched by this event at a distance.
A friend told me about the fall his daughter went off to college and he received a phone call from a college official. "We want you to know, Mr. Schutjer, that your daughter is just fine, but we felt it was important to call you to let you know that another young woman at school committed suicide this week." Cliff said his first reaction was, thank God it wasn't my daughter. Then he immediately thought, but oh, it was someone's daughter.
As our emotions bounced around, we also witnessed humanity at its best and at its worst. The terrorists' acts themselves were incomprehensible even as we watched the footage on our televisions, repeatedly, seeing what Scott Simon of National Public Radio called "visual profanity." Now in the aftermath we hear stories of fake bomb scares, charity scams and warnings to victim families not to give social security numbers to people who may be masquerading as aid workers. We hear about four men threatening to burn down a mosque in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In Irving, Texas someone fired shots into the Islamic Center. In Chicago a passerby threatened an Arab man. We heard Jerry Falwell say that God is judging this nation because we have become too secular and permit abortions and are tolerant of gays and lesbians.
Thankfully there are also indelible images of humanity at its best. Firefighters, police officers, chaplains and EMT's giving their very lives by the hundreds to help others. Rescue workers volunteering their labors, risking their own health and safety to help. People lining up and waiting as long as eight hours to give blood. Corporations and private individuals, church groups and all kinds of other groups, children and teenagers sending money, giving needed items, sending prayers and letters and hope. Prayer services, candle light vigils, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists cosmically and sometimes physically joining hands. Yes, we are seeing the best and worst that resides in the human soul . . . our own souls.
Ralph and I received statements and prayers from our denominational leaders and from other religious leaders across the country. I'd like to share portions of some of them with you.
This comes from the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches: n the next several days and weeks our nation's leadership will sort out the political and social responses to this act of terrorism. As Christians we have work to do as well: earnest prayers for our leaders; for the tremendous efforts in medical and social relief organizations who are scrambling to help; for the firefighters and disaster relief personnel involved in rescue efforts; for the world's leaders as they discuss an international response; for those who experience the ravages and savagery of terrorism daily; for the terrorists involved in the planning of this horrific act; and for all those who wish us harm. We are reminded in scripture: "If you love those who love you, do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers (and sisters), what more are you doing? .you have heard love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-48).
The following is from the President of the United Church of Christ: he violence that afflicts so much of the world that we have witnessed on television from Kosovo, Palestine, Ireland and elsewhere has now come to our homes. My heart is broken and my prayers go out to those whose loved ones have died, those who are injured and those overwhelmed by fear today.
I also pray for those who are risking their lives to save others. In the coming days we all will be tempted to surrender to our rage, to seek vengeance and to be consumed by bitterness. I call upon the members of the United Church of Christ to join in reflection about the culture of violence that consumes our world, to pray night and day for God's presence and to resist the impulse to respond to violence with violence.
This is a time of testing for our souls. May we remember that our only comfort is that we belong to Christ.
I was particularly moved by a statement written by Jim Wallis a longtime leader in Christian social action. His statement, entitled, Deny Them Their Victory: A Religious Response to Terrorism is signed by many religious leaders here and around the world. So many in fact that their typed signatures fill almost seven pages! Here is a portion of that statement. After first writing about our need to provide consolation to those who are suffering so deeply, he writes: Second, we offer a word of sober restraint as our nation discerns what its response will be. We share the deep anger toward those who so callously and massively destroy innocent lives, no matter what the grievances or injustices invoked. In the name of God, we too demand that those responsible for these utterly evil acts be found and brought to justice. Those culpable must not escape accountability. But we must not, out of anger and vengeance, indiscriminately retaliate in ways that bring on even more loss of innocent life. We pray that President Bush and members of Congress will seek the wisdom of God as they decide upon the appropriate response.
Third, we face deep and profound questions of what this attack on America will do to us as a nation. The terrorists have offered us a stark view of the world they would create, where the remedy to every human grievance and injustice is a resort to the random and cowardly violence of revenge - even against the most innocent. Having taken thousands of our lives, attacked our national symbols, forced our political leaders to flee their chambers of governance, disrupted our work and families, and struck fear into the hearts of our children, the terrorists must feel victorious.
But we can deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image. Terrorism inflicts not only death and destruction but also emotional oppression to further its aims. We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to be. We assert the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions. America must be a safe place for all our citizens in all their diversity. It is especially important that our citizens who share national origins, ethnicity, or religion with whoever attacked us are, themselves, protected among us.
Our American illusion of invulnerability has been shattered. From now on, we will look at the world in a different way, and this attack on our life as a nation will become a test of our national character. Let us make the right choices in this crisis - to pray, act, and unite against the bitter fruits of division, hatred, and violence. Let us rededicate ourselves to global peace, human dignity, and the eradication of injustice that breeds rage and vengeance.
I appreciate these articulate words from our religious leaders. I appreciate them addressing the need for us to still celebrate our diversity in this country, to resist the temptation to look at all Muslims and people from the Middle East and only see the faces of terrorists and religious fanatics. As people of faith in this city, we can help teach our children and youth and other adults for that matter to still embrace our diversity. It is our strength.
Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote an article that appeared in the Thursday Miami Herald. He wisely wrote, Hatred is unworthy of us . . . Tuesday afternoon, a friend of mine -- though in that moment, I was embarrassed to call him that -- said we should search out everyone in this country from the Middle East and send them back home.
In the wake of sentiments like those and against the backdrop of our history, let me say just one thing to my sister and brother Americans. Don't. Please, don't. Do not give terrorists the victory a hundred Pentagons and a thousand World Trade Centers could not. Hatred on account of culture or religion is unworthy of us at any time. But in the wake of Tuesday's events, it's tantamount to giving aid and comfort to the enemy, a group of petty thugs who tried to bring us down to their level, make us just like them.
He ends the article with these words: We're a people of rainbow hues and multiple faiths. If that heritage has taught us nothing else by now, it should have taught us this: It's ignorant to think you can judge a man's soul by looking at his face. Yes, I saw Arabs cheering our pain in the West Bank. I also saw them issuing condemnations in Washington.
Take it as a reminder: The enemy is not Arab people or the Muslim religion. The enemy is fanaticism, extremism, intolerance, hate. The madmen who commandeered those planes don't represent the followers of Islam any more than the madmen who blow up abortion clinics represent the followers of Christ.
Yes, we're angry. We're supposed to be angry. We have a right to be angry. But at the same time, we must be wary of the places to which we allow that anger to bring us. If we let it deliver us to the doorstep of fanaticism, extremism, intolerance, hate, we might as well give up now. Because everything that matters has already been lost.
"Amen!" to Leonard Pitts. Still, I must confess that I also fear something else that might tear at the fabric of our unity and threaten the very freedoms we want so desperately to protect. I've heard it as people called the talk shows. As our political leaders decide what actions they think are appropriate, we as a country will disagree on whether they are the appropriate actions. Some people will be judged as unpatriotic or insensitive to the victims of this atrocity if they do not support particular actions. The very foundations of this nation were laid upon the bedrock of the free expression of ideas. In this time of crisis may we continue to make the space we all treasure for citizens --- good, patriotic, American citizens --- to disagree.
Many people have asked the difficult but inevitable theological questions that always come to us in times of tragedy. Where is God? Why did God let this happen? What is God teaching us? Is God judging us? There are no easy answers. There have never been. I wish there were. But even in the face of these appalling events, I still affirm the presence and love of God. Congressman J. C. Watts, in answer to the question of where God's hand is in this tragedy said, "We don't know where God's hand is, but we do know where God's heart is."
God's heart is in the midst of every act of love and caring. God's heart is broken by the pain and suffering of God's children all God's children. God's heart is hopeful, counting on us to find a way back to love, the kind of love God has, the kind of love that encompasses everyone.
A colleague of mine said that we need to remember that even though we have been shaken, our foundation of God's love is secure. How often this week were these words from Psalm 46 spoken? God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. "The foundation of God's love is secure. And it is deeper, wider and stronger than we've yet discovered. But we better let ourselves sink into it and live out of it and discover its depth and power because we are going to need it." (The Rev. Jane Larsen-Wigger)
So, brothers and sisters, what shall we do? Send money for relief aid? You bet. Be tolerant and celebrate the diversity of our nation? Certainly. Practice open-mindedness? Absolutely. Shall we take the time to listen to other voices and become more educated about Islam? Shall we learn about other countries and hear what every day Afghani people have to say? We must! Will we teach our children about breaking the cycle of violence by modeling other ways ourselves? The future of the world depends on it.
Believe that what we each do makes a difference. Believe that love can conquer hate. Act in love, more now than ever, and know that peace must begin with each of us. I'd like to close with a story my sister told me. She works for the Timberland Company. This company is deeply involved in community service and had a group of employees including one of the company owners, in Manhattan Tuesday morning, preparing to go to work at the Clara Barton School in the Bronx.
As the city literally fell down around them, they had to make the difficult decision whether to go on with their plans. In small quiet groups of people the decision was made, to stay, and to serve.
The company owner wrote: And so a small of people, on a small concrete patch in the Bronx, responded to hatred with love today. They met anger with kindness. They exacted revenge-but the revenge of sweat in good purpose, rather than the revenge of blood spilled in rage. While we called our families, and consoled each other, and reeled at the news, we stood together, and we served together. We showed a small group of children that there are competing models for how the adult world can work. There is the model of destruction, and hatred, and despair, and by contrast, there is the model of creation, and community and even [people of different faiths], committed to the common goal and good. Principal Parker told us that he would always remember today for the evil that was done, and he would never forget today for the goodness that was wrought. (Jeff Swartz, The Timberland Company)
Believe that what we each do makes a difference. Believe that love can conquer hate. Act in love, more now than ever, and know that peace must begin here and now, in this room and with each of us. Amen.